Bestselling Gods Behaving Badly took the deities of ancient Greece and stuck them in a crumbling old house in Hampstead. But the gods could never resist meddling with mortals, and when you spend your days working on a phone sex line (Aphrodite) or running a hedonistic bar (Dionysus), the temptation must be too much to resist. Author Marie Phillips will be co-hosting the Book Swap, with Scott Pack, at the London Review Bookshop on 5th August – but if you can’t get there, we had a chat with her instead.
Greek gods living in Hampstead – where did you get the idea?
Before I became a writer I worked in TV documentaries, and it was while I was helping a friend out on a film she was making that I got the idea for Gods Behaving Badly. We were filming in a philosophy class at a high school on a US Air Base near Cambridge, and the teacher was talking about the differences between the gods of the ancient world and the Judeo-Christian God. And I found myself thinking ‘what if the Greeks were right? If these really were the gods, where would they be now and what would they be doing’? I’ve told that story so many times and it’s only this moment that I wonder whether the place we were filming might have had its own impact on my thinking: this strange enclave of Americanness in such an English setting, the last bastion of empire, self-importantly oblivious to its own fading power and relevance… You never really know what your subconscious is picking up on.
Is there any reason you chose Hampstead over, say, Ealing?
I considered lots of places. Modern day Greece itself, but then I decided that I wanted to show that these were the gods of everywhere, not just the gods of Greece. So I decided on London, as the best way that I could juxtapose the extreme world of the gods with the familiar world that I knew. Then I considered Olympia, for obvious reasons. And also the disused tube station near the British Museum. But finally I went with Hampstead, because it’s one of the parts of London that is both old enough and still has the most grandeur, plus the hill that Hampstead is perched on made me think of Mount Olympus.
What are you doing next?
I’m working on a book set in the glamorous and exciting world of personal storage. I’m not sure what my publishers think of me having gone from Greek gods to storage, but they don’t have much choice: I’m about to start my fourth draft, and they’ve signed the cheque.
You’re co-host of the Book Swap, coming to the London Review Bookshop next week. What’s different about this literary event?
I think everything is different about the Book Swap. It’s an event for people who love books but don’t necessarily love literary events. I’ve done plenty of the traditional ones in my time and they can be very dry. With the Book Swap we mix things up and involve the audience as much as we can. Having two presenters (Scott Pack and myself) and two writers keeps the discussions dynamic, we don’t do readings, and we encourage the audience to think up the most leftfield questions they can and deliver them anonymously via the question jar. (One of our best ones was “what’s your favourite moustache?”) Then of course there’s the swapping. Everyone, presenters and authors included, brings a book and we regularly interrupt proceedings to have people pitch the book they’ve brought, and anyone who wants it can pitch their own for a swap. It’s a great way to talk about books, and for audience members to get to know each other. The swapping carries on through the interval and after the event, and we find that means audience regulars come back month after month to see their Book Swap friends and carry on swapping. Oh and to eat cake, of course: bring a home baked cake and you get in for free. The entire Book Swap is always swimming in cake. I have no clue how that started. Basically if you come to the Book Swap you’re guaranteed as much cake as you can eat and to go home with a new book.
Cake is clearly very important at the Book Swap. If you could only have one type of cake for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Sadly it’s a cake I can’t ever have again, because it’s the lemon drizzle cake that my grandmother used to make, using the fat juicy lemons that grew in her garden in Cyprus. Both my grandmother and that garden are long gone. My mother still bakes the cake following her recipe, but it just isn’t the same. You need my grandmother’s touch and those lemons.
What are you currently reading?
I’m coming to the end of Wolf Hall. It’s exceptional. Bring on the second volume. I have a crush on one of the minor characters, Rafe Sadler, and was delighted to discover that he’s the ancestor of a friend of mine.
What should we read next?
All My Friends Are Superheroes, the only book that has ever made me cry from happiness. It’s a short and wonderful novel by Canadian author Andrew Kaufman about an ordinary guy whose friends are all superheroes, but with curiously familiar powers, like the Stress Bunny, who can absorb all the stress at a party leaving everyone else free to have a good time. If you get the UK edition, you’ll see a quote from Scott on the front and one from me on the back, both raving about it, and we’re extremely excited that Andrew is our guest for the Windsor Book Swap on August 19th.
Tell us your favourite part of London.
My favourite area is my manor, Newington Green, and my favourite place in the whole of London is the interior of Newington Green Fruit and Vegetables. It is the best greengrocer on earth, and the owner is some kind of fruit and veg-obsessed genius. He stocks a vast variety from the familiar to the arrestingly exotic, crammed in from floor to ceiling, fresh beyond measure and cheap beyond belief. As far as I know it’s the only place in Britain where you can get truly ripe peaches. When local residents get together, talk inevitably turns to Newington Green Fruit and Veg and how much we love it. It’s the beating heart of Newington Green – I’m sure it’s the reason that all the other local shops thrive – everyone goes there for their fruit and veg, so they use the local corner shops, the delis, the fishmonger and the rest of Newington Green’s great indies too.
All page numbers refer to the hardback edition of Gods Behaving Badly published by Jonathan Cape; images author’s own. For more information about the Book Swap on tour, visit the London Review Bookshop‘s website.
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